The fate of the universe strongly depends on a factor of unknown value: Ω, a measure of the density of matter and energy throughout the cosmos. If Ω is greater than 1, then space-time would be “closed” like the surface of an enormous sphere. If there is no dark energy, such a universe would eventually stop expanding and would instead start contracting, eventually collapsing in on itself in an event dubbed the “Big Crunch.” If the universe is closed but there

*is* dark energy, the spherical universe would expand forever.

Alternatively, if Ω is less than 1, then the geometry of space would be “open” like the surface of a saddle. In this case, its ultimate fate is the “Big Freeze” followed by the “Big Rip”: first, the universe’s outward acceleration would tear galaxies and stars apart, leaving all matter frigid and alone. Next, the acceleration would grow so strong that it would overwhelm the effects of the forces that hold atoms together, and everything would be wrenched apart.

If Ω = 1, the universe would be flat, extending like an infinite plane in all directions. If there is no dark energy, such a planar universe would expand forever but at a continually decelerating rate, approaching a standstill. If there is dark energy, the flat universe ultimately would experience runaway expansion leading to the Big Rip.

In the strange realm of electrons, photons and the other fundamental particles, quantum mechanics is law. Particles don’t behave like tiny balls, but rather like waves that are spread over a large area. Each particle is described by a “wavefunction,” or probability distribution, which tells what its location, velocity, and other properties are more likely to be, but not what those properties are. The particle actually has a range of values for all the properties, until you experimentally measure one of them — its location, for example — at which point the particle’s wavefunction “collapses” and it adopts just one location. [

Newborn Babies Understand Quantum Mechanics]

But how and why does measuring a particle make its wavefunction collapse, producing the concrete reality that we perceive to exist? The issue, known as the measurement problem, may seem esoteric, but our understanding of what reality is, or if it exists at all, hinges upon the answer.

When physicists assume all the elementary particles are actually one-dimensional loops, or “strings,” each of which vibrates at a different frequency, physics gets much easier. String theory allows physicists to reconcile the laws governing particles, called quantum mechanics, with the laws governing space-time, called general relativity, and to unify the four fundamental forces of nature into a single framework. But the problem is, string theory can only work in a universe with 10 or 11 dimensions: three large spatial ones, six or seven compacted spatial ones, and a time dimension. The compacted spatial dimensions — as well as the vibrating strings themselves — are about a billionth of a trillionth of the size of an atomic nucleus. There’s no conceivable way to detect anything that small, and so there’s no known way to experimentally validate or invalidate string theory.

Physicists can’t exactly solve the set of equations that describes the behavior of fluids, from water to air to all other liquids and gases. In fact, it isn’t known whether a general solution of the so-called Navier-Stokes equations even exists, or, if there is a solution, whether it describes fluids everywhere, or contains inherently unknowable points called singularities. As a consequence, the nature of chaos is not well understood. Physicists and mathematicians wonder, is the weather merely difficult to predict, or inherently unpredictable? Does turbulence transcend mathematical description, or does it all make sense when you tackle it with

the right math?

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